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CAMRA's Colin Valentine on the major challenges facing the booming campaign

Added: Friday, August 17th 2012

Colin Valentine looked shell-shocked but cheerful at the Great British Beer Festival. In common with all the festival organisers, he hadn’t known what to expect this year. The annual event was relegated from Earl’s Court to Olympia, as the former hall was needed for the Olympics. With the games going full bore in Stratford, there were worries that few would turn up for the beer fest.

But crowds poured in, the atmosphere was convivial and the pints disappeared down thousands of thirsty throats. At a time of economic doldrums and a declining beer market, how did the national chairman of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, explain the buoyancy of the cask ale sector?

“Because people agree with what we’re doing,” he says. “The vast majority don’t much care about food and drink but a lot of people do care – and that makes a material difference. They want to know where their beer comes from and they’re not impressed by the fact that Stella Artois is brewed in a factory in Wales.

“Our LocAle system, which encourages pubs to offer beers that are brewed just 20 or 30 miles away, has been a big influence.” He sees LocAle as an important antidote to global brands brewed under licence in countries far from their places of origin. It’s one of the many reasons, he feels, why CAMRA’s membership goes on growing and currently stands at 140,000.

Around 1,000 of those members worked at GBBF and Colin sees them as emblematic of the strength of the campaign. “They give up their holidays and they work at their own expense. Some of them are here for a week, others for two weeks. Their commitment and passion are astonishing.”

Colin, who recently turned 50, is a proud Scot who is often seen wearing the kilt. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife Aileen. He is a career civil servant and the demands of the CAMRA chairmanship means he has little spare time but he does manage to squeeze in ardent support for Motherwell football club.

He sees pub closures as one of the key challenges facing CAMRA and the brewing industry.

“Do declining pub numbers mean beer sales will fall inexorably?” he asks rhetorically. “The problems the UK has with alcohol has very little to do with the pub and everything to do with supermarket hooch. 95% of people with liver problems do their drinking at home.” He points out that Sir Ian Gilmore, the leading expert on liver disease and past president of the Royal College of Physicians, describes pub closures as “regrettable”.

“CAMRA members and supporters don’t drink alcohol – we drink real ale,” Colin stresses. “There’s a big difference between Coniston barley wine [winner of the Champion Beer of Britain award] and Carlsberg Special Brew, which comes in a can and is drunk on park benches, not in pubs.”

He is an advocate of minimum pricing for alcohol – or “the Tesco tax” as he calls it – to tackle the power of the supermarkets. Minimum pricing, which originated in his native Scotland, would not affect pub prices and would bring in what Colin calls “a level playing field. The aim of the supermarkets is simple: they want to control everything.”

He is not a fan, either, of the big national pub companies or pubcos. He has no doubt that the Beer Orders of the early 1990s were designed to tackle the power of the big brewers, not create national pubcos that charge top prices for beer, high rents for tenants and offer restricted choice for drinkers. “They prove that’s it not beyond the wit of man to get round the law,” he says. “The national pubcos are basically bankrupt but they’re so big the banks can’t close them down.”

He is fiercely critical of the pubcos policy of closing “uneconomic” pubs, some of which prove to be successful in private hands. “Empty pubs are no use to drinkers,” says. “They should be kept going.”

Next on Colin’s agenda is the campaign to decrease beer duty – Britain has the highest rates in Europe – and get the government to scrap the “duty escalator” that automatically increases the tax on beer in the annual budget. CAMRA has organised a petition against the escalator: if it can attract 100,000 signatures it would force the government to hold a parliamentary debate on the subject. He rejects the criticism that says the campaign, with its large membership, has yet to hit the target.

“We’re getting 10,000 signatures a month,” he says. “The total to date is 77,000 and we’re on course to reach 100,000 by October.”

He rejects the claim by Treasury minister Chloe Smith that scrapping the escalator would lose the exchequer £35 million a year. “That’s a smidgeon compared to bankers’ bonuses,” he says. “What’s missing from her argument is the loss to the Treasury every time a pub closes because of high duty rates: the government loses duty, income tax and VAT. It’s time the civil servants in the Treasury, not the ministers, did some proper analysis and looked at the money that comes in from pubs.”

Colin backs the call to reduce the level of VAT on pub food and drink. The campaign started in France and has been successful there and in several other European countries. “It gets more people eating out and that increases revenue for the Treasury,” he says.

With so many challenges facing beer and pubs, CAMRA members may find it odd that the campaign is being sniped at by a few small brewers who are producing “craft keg beer”, which they feel CAMRA should either endorse or make available at beer festivals.

Colin Valentine responds: “There are enough enemies of beer and pubs without people who are in favour of beer and pubs calling each other names. If people want to make beer that is not cask conditioned – then be my guest. They are free to do what they want. We won’t stock them at our festivals but we won’t denigrate them, either.”

He’s reluctant to name names but he points out that the most strident critic of CAMRA makes a lot of noise but small amounts of beer. “It launched a beer that it claimed was the strongest in the world but it only produced 900 bottles. It doesn’t really exist. It may be that all publicity is good publicity but eventually people will stop taking notice of this brewery.”

With that, against a background of clanging metal casks, loudspeaker announcements and the buzz of happy drinkers at Olympia, Colin was off to a festival stewards’ meeting. He was secure in the knowledge that not only is CAMRA membership on a roll but the number of small breweries is around 900, the biggest for some 60 years.

And the overwhelming majority produce the sort of beer CAMRA’s national chairman wants to drink.

*Image above: a closed pub, one of CAMRA's key campaigns. 

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